Armchair Cinephile

Shortly after I filed my most-recent documentary-centric column, I got the announcement: Docurama, the label (obviously) devoted to nonfiction film, was set to unveil two new treasure chests of goodies for those cinephiles with a taste for reality. After receiving press releases about some other new titles (more about those shortly), it started to seem irresponsible not to pay some more attention to the field, no matter how slighted the world of make-believe might feel.

One of Docurama’s new sets is a straightforward sequel to their Awards Collection — a 12-title group covering everything from World War II interment camps to inner-city schools, from opera to Cuba to God. The only common theme is that all were nominated for the best-doc Oscar (and almost half won). The second batch, which has some overlap with the first, takes its cue from the recent “film fest in your living room” clubs: The Docurama Film Festival 1 assembles 10 films (available individually or as a set) that focus on political or social issues. The studio has set up a forum at in the hopes that viewers will share their impressions as they might at an actual festival, although there aren’t a whole lot of comments posted there yet.

If they wanted to guarantee that folks will have something to talk about, the curators might have thrown in some films whose topics make it hard to be neutral at the moment. One of the most essential, Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight (Sony), addresses the current war in Iraq by taking a hard look at how warfare came to be a core ingredient of the American economy; sober and rational, it should be required viewing for anyone (politicians and citizens alike) faced with the question of supporting military action, be it in Iraq or elsewhere.

The wave of up-to-the-second, current-issue films continues with HBO’s Baghdad ER; On Native Soil (Lionsgate), a fifth-anniversary commemoration of 9/11 that has one big advantage over the films rushed out in the months following the event — it’s based on the final 9/11 Commission Report; Protocols of Zion (Thinkfilm), which uses 9/11 conspiracy theories as a starting point for a disturbing look at age-old anti-Semitic propaganda; and the controversial double-header A and A2 (Facets), which go behind the scenes of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult to remind us that not all terrorists are concerned with Middle- East politics.

On to happier subjects — like real-life counterparts to Aardman Animations’ Creature Comforts menagerie. In between his classic portrait of General Idi Amin and his entry into the Hollywood rat race, Barbet Schroeder and God-among-cinematographers Nestor Almendros made Koko: A Talking Gorilla (Criterion), a self-explanatory look at a San Francisco Zoo resident who learned American Sign Language.

But few quirksville docs could be more joyful than Wild Wheels (, in which Harrod Blank (son of doc legend Les) introduced mainstream America to the Art Car phenomenon. From obsessive-compulsives who paste thousands of tiny artifacts all over their junkers to visionaries who transform a vehicle into conceptual sculpture, the movie makes eccentricity look like so much fun that you’re almost guaranteed to consider making a trip to Houston’s annual Art Car Parade. (I did, after seeing the movie in the ’90s, and it was one of the most enjoyable road trips I’ve taken.)

Speaking of art and Texas, Donald Judd is the subject of half of 2 Sculptors (Arthouse/Palm), which is highlighted by an interview with the late MiniMarfalist. On the other hand, Paul Klee, The Silence of the Angel (Facets) could have done with fewer words from the artist’s mouth. Not that it isn’t solidly informative and loaded with good looks at Klee’s art — but having a normal guy read these grandiose journal entries makes them sound pretty goofy, and the rest of the film’s voice-over text doesn’t help.

Art and docs intersect far more elegantly in Ballets Russes (Zeitgeist, in stores on September 12), a loving trip through the archives of the men and women who made ballet a cultural phenomenon. Despite the debatably obscure subject, a wealth of gorgeous archival footage and a dramatic narrative arc ensured that the film made more than one “Top 10 of 2005” list.

Finally, a threesome for the hard-core film buff, each addressing an essential aspect of cinephilia: Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (Kino) pays tribute to the Paris pack rat and film-program curator without whose influence there might not have been a French New Wave; The Last Mogul (Kino), about the substantially less benevolent but commercially incomparable influence of Hollywood powerbroker Lew Wasserman; and Zizek! (Zeitgeist), introducing us to a Slovenian cultural theorist who’s happy to find the connections between religion, Lenin, and Hitchcock. He eventually gets into 9/11 as well, but just for a moment, let’s pretend to be over that kind of documentary.